Huts of the High Country 

26 July 1975 The Canberra Times

By Mike Hinchey

An intriguing social phenomenon has occurred in the Snowy Mountains in the past few years, one that has actively involved mixed bag of citizens scattered between Sydney and Melbourne and not a small number from the ACT.

Despite distance they have   been drawn together by something in common - an active appreciation of the mountains, snows and rivers of the Kosciusko National Park and a desire to see the assorted collection of stockmen's huts, miners' shanties and old ski shelters maintained for the use of roaming fisher men, bush walkers, and ski tourers.    

It began in 1971 when the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service took stock of the motley collection of shelters for which it had become public custodian by virtue of the powers that had been vested in it when the Kosciusko National Park was established.    

Some of these huts date back to the gold-mining days after the   rush in 1860 transformed Gibsons Plains, where the tiny ghost town of Kiandra is now situated, into the site of a tent and timber city of about 10,000 people.    

The next generation of huts, wooden-slab-and-shingle dwellings, began to appear late last century, built by the graziers of the Monaro, the Tumut Plains and the upper Murray who used the alpine areas and high country for summer pasturage.  

The weather in the high country can be severe, and as long ago as 1835 a Mr Palmer, of Yaouk Station, near Adaminaby, is reputed to have lost 300 cattle in the snows on Gibsons Plains.  

The early huts were built of bush materials but these were repaired, replaced or added to   as the years went by with structures of corrugated iron, and it is mainly this style that has survived the ravages of fire or weather till today.

Some of the runs in country which had only occasional snow-cover came to be grazing properties managed all year round, and the now derelict homesteads with evocative names such as Old Currango, Long Plain, Gooandra and Cooinbil still stand, as monuments to a bygone era.

The sprinkling of stockmen's huts in the early decades of this century were supplemented by the first of the huts built specifically as shelters for skiers.

The Tin Hut, on the eastern flank of the Kerries, was built during the summer of 1925-26 as an overnight shelter for the party which made the first winter traverse on skis some 50 odd miles across the high country between Kiandra and the Kosciusko Chalet.

The Alpine Hut, south-east of the Cup-and-Saucer Hill, was built as a commercial venture and opened in 1939. This was a much larger structure and was managed throughout the winter, by a married couple who provided skiing instruction and plain, wholesome food for the moneyed holidaymakers from Australia's cities who sought something a little different from the comfortable pleasures, of the two established NSW resorts of the Kosciusko Hotel or The Chalet. It is now used mainly by and maintained by members of the Australian Scouts Association.    

The next wave of construction in the High country began in 1949 when the first employees of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority set up their camp at the Three Mile Dam, built some 80, years earlier to provide water for power sluicing on the goldfields near Kiandra.

The SMA built many structures, perhaps not particularly attractive to the eye, but functional. Many were removed when their job was  done, but some remain to add to the "estate" inherited by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

For many years after the birth of the Kosciusko National Park in 1944 a system of what were known as snow leases continued. Under these, sheep and cattle, continued to graze the sub-alpine grasslands in summer and the shepherds and stockmen continued to occupy the huts until their leases were finally phased out in 1974.

As the snow leases were progressively withdrawn many of the huts began to show signs of disrepair.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service, with its limited budget, did not relish the prospect of maintaining the structures but, rather than solve the problem with some well placed matches, it called a meeting of fishermen, ski-tourers and bushwalkers to put the management's problems to the users.

This gave rise to yet another wave of activity.  

The result of this meeting was the Kosciusko Huts Association; a grouping of individuals and various open-air clubs which at no expense to the Parks Service assumed the responsibility of maintaining the high-country huts.

They still remain the exclusive property of the National Park and are open to all comers and the authorities retain the right to dictate the manner and the standard of their maintenance.

If a group, of ratepayers, confronted with a deteriorating public road, were to suddenly get together, and maintain the road themselves, the media would have a field day.

Politicians would have their say, bureaucrats' knuckles would be rapped, and the aroused citizens would withdraw self-righteously as those regarded universally as responsible - some government body - turned their attention to the area of neglect.

One could well ask how the National Parks and Wildlife Service got away with it.

The tasks involved have not been light.

Fireplaces have been rebuilt, and in one case a stove weighing well over 400lb was pulled by hand overland on a trailer. Tongue-and-grove timber sufficient to completely refloor huts has been carried bodily overland, as have bags of cement, bricks and other items.

For its part, the NPWS has occasionally made its helicopter available to transfer awkward loads to more inaccessible locations and allowed members of the KHA to use fire-trail's normally barred by locked gates so that they might ferry building materials to within walking distance of a hut.    

The association is now turning its attention to the task of repairing split-slab-and-shingle huts, rediscovering techniques of construction virtually lost to the present generation.  

If one wanted to isolate the factor that principally gave rise to this effort one could readily point to self-interest. But this is only a partial explanation.   

There is a certain "spirit of the mountains" among members of the KHA that is not obvious till one watches these people hump heavy loads all day, skin their knuckles, and turn their hands to unaccustomed building tasks, then yarn and sing around a cosy camp fire before finally drifting off to sleep in the open, or snug in the little hut which they have laboured to maintain, and improve.

One can get a whiff of the character of the huts from their names - Mawson's, Cesjack's (built by two stockmen, Cecil and Jack), Broken Dam, Grey Mare, Kidman's, Pretty Plain - the list is about 100 long. So there is a little of Australia's rural heritage hanging on in the Snowy Mountains.  

This is not to say that air the huts are safe from the ravages of time and nature: only about 40 are presently maintained by the KHA and even these are not secure.

Last summer saw two huts destroyed by fire, and last winter another, situated appropriately on Windy Creek, was blown off its foundations in a blizzard.

Now only the raised wooden floor remains, with a scattering of debris downwind.

And surprisingly, perhaps, this was not a roughly-built old timer's hut, but a relatively modern structure, built by the SMA in the 1950s.

Winter has by now, again come to the mountains and many of the huts are already partly submerged by snow.

The hardy folk who ski off into the wilderness are assured that should weather conditions suddenly deteriorate, somewhere   not too far away, will be a secure little fortress against the elements.

There can be few more heart warming sights than the glimmer of a candle against the window, when you are feeling your way through a blizzard in the last light of a tiring day.

The address of the Kosciusko Huts Association is: PO Box 626, Manuka, ACT